When an Officer Is the Victim


Multiple Barriers

Female police officers face an ongoing struggle for acceptance and respect in the male-dominated profession of policing. In many jurisdictions, there is only one female officer. To win acceptance and respect, women are continually required to demonstrate that they can handle a "man's job." In this environment, a female officer who is being abused feels a great deal of pressure to hide what is happening. The far-reaching effects of abuse often wreak havoc with her professional performance. For example, she may take excessive leave time or frequently be late for work. She may be forced to make excuses for damage to her uniform or equipment, for her physical injuries. She is likely to have little hope that she can escape the situation on her own, yet she knows that telling anyone at work about the abuse means repercussions on the job.

A female officer is in a significantly different, more dangerous and more vulnerable situation.

Similar to male officers, female officers face discrimination and loss of career if they seek help or counseling. If a victim wants counseling or shelter, she will probably seek help in another community where she can maintain anonymity. There are many barriers to using services in her home community:

Professional Consequences

There are additional negative consequences she may face if she reports her abuse to the department:

Officer-involved domestic violence policies vary in their consideration of officers who are victims. Some policies have unintended negative consequences. Policies that mandate the victim to report the abuse, mandate her colleagues to report knowledge of her situation, and/or mandate the petitioner of a protective order to report the action may prevent an officer-victim from seeking help. The department is likely to order a fitness-for-duty evaluation or order her to attend counseling, either of which become part of her permanent file. Supervisors may place her on administrative or medical leave.

She may be ordered to cooperate with an internal investigation that is likely to be more focused on shielding the department from liability than supporting her and holding the abuser accountable. If she tells the investigator everything, she risks disciplinary action for both herself and the abuser. If she withholds information that investigators discover later, she may face discipline or termination.

If she goes to the department for help, she may be shunned by colleagues for breaking the "code of silence" by informing on another officer. Her report may be treated as "she said, he said," her word against his. As a female officer she is already the other in the organization and is unlikely to have the same credibility as a male officer.

Abuser Strategies

Abusers often take preemptive action when they sense the victim is going to tell someone about her abuse.

When abuser is a civilian

People may doubt that a civilian abuser can dominate, coerce, or batter a police officer. He may use her professional status to convince advocates, responding officers, or a prosecutor that she is really the abuser. He might physically threaten her, and then accuse her of aggression when she responds with professional self-defense. He knows that accusations of use of force can threaten her job. He knows that he can potentially destroy her career if he can get an order of protection.

When both are officers

There are additional complications when both the victim and batterer are in law enforcement. Reporting the abuse exposes her private life to intense scrutiny. Both their careers can be damaged if she proceeds with a complaint. The abuser is likely to apply relentless pressure and threats to make her recant and withdraw her complaint. Lethality risks multiply. Both have been trained to use weapons and tactics that can be used to attack another and defend oneself.

Same-sex relationship

The victim faces another layer of barriers to seeking help if she is in a same-sex relationship. Responding officers and others may label the situation "mutual combat," assuming both parties have equal power in the relationship as females and trained police officers. Most communities have few or no resources for lesbian victims of battering. Where they exist, the abuser may contact the advocacy organization and convince staff that she is the victim. If the victim is still in a heterosexual marriage, her abusive partner may threaten to reveal her activities to her husband. Exposing her sexual activities may impact any pending divorce or custody action. If she has not disclosed her sexual orientation, supervisors, other officers, family and friends may feel betrayed because she was not open with them about herself.

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Intervention

The political climate, public sentiment and the department's interest can influence the decision to prosecute.

If the department mandates her to get counseling, we can support her request to receive counseling at the local domestic violence agency instead of through an Employee Assistance Program, department counselor, or department chaplain. A counselor who has expertise in domestic violence issues will help keep her safety and well-being as the focus and first priority. In addition, her confidentiality is protected as the counselor does not report to the department.

A civil order of protection can be an effective method of warning an abusive officer to restrain from further violence. If the victim is considering this option, she needs to know whether her department's policy mandates the petitioner to inform the department of the order. This requirement may deter her from obtaining an order because she may not want to notify the department. Another option is an Administrative Order of Protection which can be issued by the abuser's department. This is a direct order from command level for the abuser to refrain from specific conduct, such as going to the victim's home or contacting her. If the officer violates it, the department can discipline him for insubordination.

When the abuser is in the same department, the safety plan should include measures to separate the victim and abuser on the job.

The officer and her advocate can request that the police department develop a safety plan for her, both on and off duty. This should include a thorough risk and lethality assessment. It might also include allowing her to take a leave of absence without loss of pay or seniority. Every effort must be made to ensure that the safety plan does not punish her with loss of status, loss of pay, or unnecessary inconvenience or hardship. It might include an Administrative Order of Protection and/or transferring the abuser to a different shift or assignment, or reassigning the victim (without a loss of pay or seniority). The safety plan might include assigning another officer to ride with her and/or the abuser while on duty. Off duty, the department can place the victim on a drive-by watch — with her permission.

A victim in law enforcement will try to avoid calling 911. She is typically embarrassed to admit that she is being battered, and knows that it will open her life to scrutiny. She also knows that officers are loathe to respond to a domestic at another officer's home, and do not want to be in situations where they may have to arrest a colleague. If police are called — whether by the victim or her child or a neighbor — responding officers may be conflicted about whom to believe. They may find it difficult to determine the predominant aggressor, especially when both parties are police officers.

Prosecutors may be reluctant to pursue charges if her case becomes a criminal matter. Prosecutors may not believe an armed officer can be a victim in her own home. Her department may also pressure her not to pursue criminal charges, particularly if the abuser is also an officer. If there was a 911 call and arrest, responding officers are drawn into testifying in a case that affects their own department, colleagues and friends. She may be reluctant to participate in any prosecution, particularly if she has to disclose intimate details of her life in front of her colleagues.

Finally, going to a domestic violence shelter may not be a viable option because her abuser may know the location of local shelters. We suggest that you contact other DV service providers — before a critical incident — in order to identify resources and locations which might be able to provide temporary shelter and assistance.

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